Part One of Two Parts
By Ramona DeFelice Long
A first novel. A writing fellowship. A conference panel. A contest win. Author day at a school. A book festival. These are events a writer daydreams about—unless public speaking is involved. Then, for some authors, the daydream becomes a nightmare.
Not long ago, I followed a conversation on the Sisters in Crime members-only listserv about shy authors. Writing is a solitary occupation, someone wrote, and being a good writer does not automatically make you a good public speaker. Someone else pointed out that reading work aloud in front of a group, or discussing work in a panel, is awkward, unnatural and terrifying.
If you feel this way, you are not alone. Many people fear giving a speech more than flying, heights, terminal illness, old age or being mauled by a bear.
Public speaking is a regular gig for me. In 2011, I’ve been on stage, so to speak, as a writing teacher, a workshop leader, a featured reader, an emcee, a free write facilitator and a guest author. I am not shy, and I am (mostly) comfortable in front of a crowd because I do it often.
But what if you don’t? What if the prospect of reading in public fills you with dread?
Reading to an audience is an art—a performance art. It’s also a skill that can be developed. I’d like to offer four Ps—Purpose, Plan, Practice and Psyche Yourself—to help shy authors overcome their trepidation.
Purpose – Think of a public reading as an opportunity, both for you and the audience. You have the chance to present your written work verbally or to talk about your creative process. The audience gets to experience that, live.
To make the most of this opportunity, answer the following:
What is your goal? To promote your work—that’s a given. More specifically, is your appearance to promote a particular work? Or is it to promote yourself as an author? If your purpose is to promote a specific or newly-published work, read from it. If your purpose is to promote yourself as an author, share a piece that best represents your body of work.
Plan – First, consider time. Most people read at a rate of one minute per page. 15 minutes = 15 pages. Take into account time for someone to introduce you and for questions at the end. If you’re doing a book talk as opposed to a straight reading, include time for story background.
If you are slated with other authors, be considerate. Don’t eat into someone else’s performance minutes. When you are solo, fill up the time allotted. If you are scheduled for 30 minutes and your reading peters out after 15, this is not good. Always give the impression that there’s never enough time to share your writing with the wonderful people who’ve come to hear you.
Next, the audience. Who will be there? What’s appropriate to read to them? At a senior citizen facility, for instance, avoid racy sex scenes and don’t drop any f-bombs. Likewise, a quiet mother-baby scene might not fly at a middle school.
And now, what to read? From a novel or short story, choose a beginning or full scene that is active. It doesn’t have to be high action, but choose a scene with a clear event or important exchange at its center. Your selection should stand alone without a lot of explanation. If you are given five minutes to read, and you need two of those minutes to set up the scene, identify characters or share back-story, you’ve made a poor choice. If you must set it up, keep it short: “Jane is the main character. John is her husband. Their son Tommy has gone missing while biking with friends in Spain.”
How the story came to you is always interesting—but keep that brief as well. “I got this idea after visiting a B&B in Massachusetts. The hill behind the garden was the sight of a massacre during King Philip’s War and is supposedly haunted. This story grew out of that.”
Finally, if possible, inquire about the venue and set. Will you be behind a podium? Standing before a free-standing microphone? Sitting at a table? A reading is a physical performance, and you want to be physically comfortable. If you need to sit, or a podium makes you nervous, relay that to the coordinator.
To be continued tomorrow...
Ramona DeFelice Long writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults and everyone in between. She works as an independent editor, specializing in mystery novels and short stories, and teaches workshops on all aspects of writing. Ramona is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Delaware Literary Connection, the Hillendale Farm Critique Group and is an honorary member of The Written Remains writing group.